Celebrating a gold star

When Singapore gained its independence 50 years ago, its founding father Lee Kuan Yew called it “a moment of anguish” recalls Foo Chi Hsia, the city state’s High Commissioner to London.

When it separated from Malaysia in 1965, few believed Singpore could survive on its own, yet this year Singapore celebrates its Golden Jubilee, following the first-ever Singaporean State Visit to the UK last year.

Explaining the remarkable turnaround from bereft colony to global success story, Foo says: “We were determined to turn what seemed to be our permanent disadvantages – our small size, our lack of resources, our immigrant population – into advantages.”

Doggedly self reliant, the small nation rallied behind its charismatic, tough leader. “The greatest legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and his team was building strong institutions and long-term planning,” says the High Commissioner.

Situated on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, Singapore transformed itself into an efficiently run, trading and financial services hub.

Lacking in natural resources Singapore invested in its only asset: human capital. “The very basis of our independence was the belief in multiculturalism and equal opportunity for all,” says the High Commissioner. (That includes women: although Foo is the first woman high commissioner in London, there have been women ambassadors in top posts from Washington and New York, to Moscow, Geneva, Brussels and Bangkok).

A predictable political environment allowed Singapore’s leaders to plan far into the future. These days the political landscape is much more competitive, a challenge for Singapore’s next generation of leaders, the High Commissioner admits, but adds: “Our fundamentals won’t change – being self reliant, multicultural, globally connected, highly educated and innovative.”

Multiculturalism has always given Singapore a competitive edge, especially when doing business with emerging giants like China and India. But without careful management, multiculturalism can breed extremism.

Foo knows this all too well, having held the Afghanistan portfolio while serving in New York. Her warnings about the security threat of this “strategic orphan” were proved tragically correct on 9/11. Intelligence gathered in Afghanistan revealed Singapore was the target of a terrorist plot.

Seeing New York turned into a ghost town on 9/11 made a deep impression on Foo. Singapore has taken lessons from its sibling city. “Our focus is on recovering the day after an attack and preserving our multicultural society,” she explains. Singapore’s successful deradicalisation programmes, focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration in the community, have been studied around the world.

The country takes its defence and the security of critical shipping routes like the Straits of Malacca and Singapore – the lifeblood of world trade – very seriously. That’s because trade is critical to Singapore. “Trade is our history, our lifeline, our future,” says Foo, who was Singapore’s Director of International Economics, responsible for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and WTO matters from 2008-09.

The conclusion of the Doha Trade Round is Singapore’s ultimate goal. But with talks deadlocked, and the rise regional trading blocs, Singapore’s trade diplomats have had to think smart.

Joining with other small, open, free-trading nations on the Pacific, Singapore initiated a cross-Pacific trading pact, which has grown into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Singapore is also a member of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). “We are working carefully behind the scenes so that both blocs work in parallel and the hope is they will eventually converge to a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific,” explains the High Commissioner.

Smart nation
Innovative management of scarce resources is a recurring theme in the Singapore story. A world leader in urban planning, Singapore aspires to being a ‘Smart Nation’, using digital and mobile technology to allocate resources efficiently, from public transport to healthcare services.

Sharing technology is a key ingredient in the UK-Singapore relationship and creating partnerships between Britain and Singapore’s top research universities was a major theme during President Tan’s State Visit.

Enhancing Singapore’s status as an education hub is part of its future-proofing strategy. “Singapore offers a good launching pad for students who want to be exposed to Asia – we call it ‘Asia light’ because people speak English and the standard of living is similar,” explains Foo.

But in the global competition for skills, retaining talent is a challenge. Part of the answer lies in making the densely populated city “liveable”, says Foo. A pioneer in ‘greening’ technologies, Singapore is home to outstanding gardens, including the Singapore Botanic Garden, which this year was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. “We call ourselves a city in a garden,” smiles the High Commissioner. The flora has an added benefit: Singapore is noticeably cooler than neighbouring cities.

But Singapore is getting cooler in more ways than one, as a creative hub. This was recently showcased in an installation in London’s trendy Shoreditch, called Singapore Inside Out, which contrasted with the classical Singapore Celebrates segment in the City of London Festival.

In this dynamic sector, Singapore can learn much from Britain, says Foo, whose highlight of the State Visit was a tour of Aardman Studios – Britain’s famous animators who created the globally popular Wallace and Gromit. “It taught me that nothing beats a good storyline!” she laughs.

And Singapore, at 50, certainly has that.

Elizabeth Stewart, editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the High Commissioner for Singapore on 15 July, and updated the text on 5 November